Top 10 pipeline blowups, set­backs and sna­fus in H1 2017

As Big Pharma and the growing biotech sector shifted their R&D sights over the past decade — focusing more on game-changing drugs and shunning the me-too variety that don’t fare well with payers — the usual pitfalls, setbacks and snafus have grown more spectacular with each passing year. You have to break it down into 6-month allotments just to keep a handle on the consequences of major breakdowns.

This list, though, also raises questions about the role the FDA has come play in raising risks for patients in cancer studies. Two of my 10 drugs on the hit list are oncology drugs that were put on hold — briefly — only to get yanked again after more deaths hit the drug arm of the pivotal study. Is the FDA doing its job properly in evaluating the risks associated with experimental cancer drugs? Or has the rush to get new approvals caused regulators to lower safety standards too far?

The FDA has received considerable praise for the way it’s carved a short pathway for accelerated cancer drug approvals. So it’s no surprise that no one is even asking that question.

I’ve added a new category of a biopharma implosion: the self-inflicted pricing scandal. It did in one company on this list, and the same pitfall awaits others. And I’m also adding a line on how the company’s stock did year-to-date. The Dow Jones, offered in context, is up 9% from the beginning of this year.

The nasty surprises outlined below are another reminder of the big gambles every drug developer is engaged in. This isn’t a job for the weak of heart. And too much hubris is even worse.


1
Eli Lilly
Baricitinib goes from blockbuster contender to doghouse tenant in a sudden and devastating fall from grace

Based: Indianapolis, IN
$LLY:+3% YTD
CEO: David Ricks

The scoop: By all accounts, Eli Lilly’s NDA for its blockbuster contender baricitinib looked like a slam dunk. The pharma giant had highlighted solid efficacy data and a safety profile without setting off any alarms. So when the FDA’s rejection was announced in April, the news took everyone by surprise. It took awhile, but Lilly eventually revealed that evidence of blood clots in two of seven studies — Lilly is nothing if not completely thorough in its development work — forced regulators to throw the red flag. The delay on new safety data could now take three or four years to nail down, leaving Lilly looking at a very late comeback attempt after a new round of entries from its rivals. It’s a big decision, and an awful place to be in for new CEO Dave Ricks, who’s been simultaneously rejigging the pipeline. Lilly, though, has a habit of sticking with its late-stage drugs if there’s any chance of success. Lilly’s R&D group ran three failed late-stage studies on their Alzheimer’s drug solanezumab, and they still have clinical work underway on it. The pharma giant went through one of the worst dry spells in the industry, which forced a pledge on a string of new approvals. And recently they got handed a beating in a Phase III head-to-head between its new diabetes drug Trulicity and Novo’s semaglutide. The last thing Ricks needs now is a return to the old, bad days of R&D setbacks.


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Norbert Bischofberger. Kronos

Backed by some of the biggest names in biotech, Nor­bert Bischof­berg­er gets his megaround for plat­form tech out of MIT

A little over a year ago when I reported on Norbert Bischofberger’s jump from the CSO job at giant Gilead to a tiny upstart called Kronos, I noted that with his connections in biotech finance, that $18 million launch round he was starting off with could just as easily have been $100 million or more.

With his first anniversary now behind him, Bischofberger has that mega-round in the bank.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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On a glob­al romp, Boehringer BD team picks up its third R&D al­liance for Ju­ly — this time fo­cused on IPF with $50M up­front

Boehringer Ingelheim’s BD team is on a global deal spree. The German pharma company just wrapped its third deal in 3 weeks, going back to Korea for its latest pipeline pact — this time focused on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

They’re handing over $50 million to get their hands on BBT-877, an ATX inhibitor from Korea’s Bridge Biotherapeutics that was on display at a science conference in Dallas recently. There’s not a whole lot of data to evaluate the prospects here.

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Servi­er scoots out of an­oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tion with Macro­Gen­ics, writ­ing off their $40M

Servier is walking out on a partnership with MacroGenics $MGNX — for the second time.

After the market closed on Wednesday MacroGenics put out word that Servier is severing a deal — inked close to 7 years ago — to collaborate on the development of flotetuzumab and other Dual-Affinity Re-Targeting (DART) drugs in its pipeline.

MacroGenics CEO Scott Koenig shrugged off the departure of Servier, which paid $20 million to kick off the alliance and $20 million to option flotetuzumab — putting a heavily back-ended $1 billion-plus in additional biobuck money on the table for the anti-CD123/CD3 bispecific and its companion therapies.